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Tell me your story

Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes isn’t easy. A mile might seem awfully long if the shoes are too big, too small, not your style, or have holes in them. But the ability to slip into the shoes, the skin, or the story of another person is how we practice empathy and become better communicators.

In a program on clinical empathy at Duke University, oncologists are taught to “Never respond to a feeling with a fact.”  When people are in distress, their ability to listen (and hear what is being said) is compromised. They just want their emotions – fear, sadness, confusion, anger – to be acknowledged. Ideally, the person on the other side of the conversation is adept at recognizing emotions and responding appropriately.

Howard Wainer has written that, “It is absolutely crucial to try to determine what information the receiver needs to hear and not let that be overwhelmed by other things that you may want to tell her…the core of effective communication is empathy.” One Duke-trained doctor asks himself before such encounters, “What is needed here?” The answer is not always facts or solutions.

photoOn my computer monitor, I have a sticky note that says FAVE. It’s left over from a communication workshop I took. The acronym stands for “First Acknowledge, Validate, Empathize”. This is especially helpful to practice when you have a difficult or emotionally charged conversation to handle. Even if you don’t agree with someone, it’s important to listen first and acknowledge what you have heard by paraphrasing or repeating back the speaker’s words. Then validate that their feelings are grounded in a solid premise, that they are entitled to have them. Finally, empathize, let the person know that you can identify with those feelings, either because you have felt them yourself, or you imagine you could.

We all know how frustrating it can be to call a customer service number for product support. But even those interactions, where customers and agents inherently have conflicting needs, can often be improved by the use of empathy work. Researchers who studied employees at a telephone call center found that three types of skills – attentive, affective and cognitive – made the difference. The attentive skills were focused on active listening: repeating back, acknowledging, asking for more information and summarizing what was said. The affective skills dealt with being able to recognize customers’ feelings and identifying with them. The cognitive steps came last – taking the customer’s perspective, trying to provide help, and offering options. The most important part of the interaction was the attentive, being able to listen well enough to know what was needed. Sometimes people don’t want to hear, “I’m sorry”, they just want you to solve the problem. Other times, the apology is very much necessary. Attentiveness is key – “what is needed here?”IMG_2325

Have you ever heard, “You just don’t understand!” from someone you love? It hurts, because relationships matter and understanding is their foundation. Essentially, what each of us really wants is to have our story matter, to be heard, to be understood, to have someone else feel what we feel. Novelist Sue Monk Kidd has written, “Empathy is the most mysterious transaction that the human soul can have, and it’s accessible to all of us, but we have to give ourselves the opportunity to identify, to plunge ourselves in a story where we see the world from the bottom up or through another’s eyes or heart.”

Taking the plunge is the challenge for us. Diving into someone’s story, looking out through their eyes, walking in their shoes. Asking, “What is needed here?”

We see the headlines all the time: “Stress makes you sick,” “Work makes you stressed,” “Stress makes you fat,” even “Stress Kills.” But why does all this happen? Why is stress so dangerous, and how do we know?

Luckily for us, there are a lot of outstanding neuroscientists, social scientists and others who are devoting their careers to answering these questions. Many of them are women, so in honor of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, I thought I would profile a few of them and the highlights from their work.

What socioemotional resources are available to us during stress and where do they originate?

Shelley E. Taylor is a Distinguished Research Professor at UCLA and winner of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association. She is perhaps best known for the “Tend and Befriend” theory: the idea that our response to stressful situations is not always “fight or flight.” Sometimes primates, especially females, seek out social relationships to protect themselves and their offspring during stress. These “affiliative” behaviors may be mediated by the hormone oxytocin, or in men, vasopressin, which may act as a thermostat for social resources, triggering a hormone response when our social support goes too low.holding_hands1

How exactly does stress age us and why are we more likely to develop chronic diseases as we age?

It turns out that we have little caps on the ends of our chromosomes called “telomeres”. These are bit like the tips at the ends of our shoelaces. Just like shoelace tips, the telomeres stabilize the ends of the chromosomes and keep them from unraveling. Elizabeth H. Blackburn and Carol W. Greider (along with Jack W. Szostak) won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine for their work on how telomeres protect the chromosomes and how the enzyme telomerase maintains the length of the telomeres even as the cells divide. If we don’t have enough telomerase, and cells keep dividing as they do, eventually telomeres get so short that cells die — limiting years of healthy life. And guess what has an impact on telomerase — stress!image

How does that cell aging manifest itself physically and psychologically?

Elissa Epel of UCSF studies cell aging in people with major depression and those who suffer acute and chronic psychosocial stress. She has focused on the role of telomerase and the stress pathways that lead to early aging, overeating, abdominal obesity and immune responses. She is also involved with interventions using mindfulness and social support to help lower stress reactivity and improve emotion regulation.

How does social status impact our stress levels and their health consequences?

Carol Shively, of Wake Forest University, studies monkeys and other primates to explore how social stress might lead to depression and greater susceptibility to disease. She has found that animals who are lower on the social ladder for extended periods of time have twice as much hardening of the arteries as dominant animals. Other studies have shown similar patterns in humans.

Why do we want to eat comfort food during stress, and why do we gain fat around the abdomen?

Comfort foods and abdominal fat actually reduce stress and make us feel better. Mary Dallman, also at UCSF, studies the brain-pituitary-adrenal interrelationships and how chronic stress effects changes in energy balance. She has found that every type of cell in the body has receptors for glucocorticoids [stress hormones], which means that stress can potentially cause havoc everywhere. It also leads to an increase in the synthesis of fat and glucose, while protein synthesis declines, throwing off how we process the food we eat.

In spite of all this stress, how can we be happy?

Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at UC Riverside, and winner of the Templeton Positive Psychology Prize, studies human happiness, what makes people happy, and how people can become happier. Her work shows that while we all have temperaments that make us more or less happy to begin with, a fairly significant percentage of our potential for happiness is open to change. Her research has found that generally happy people tend to interpret events in a positive way that supports their happiness, while chronically unhappy people tend to interpret the same events in ways that bolster their unhappiness. So she also studies how the thoughts and behaviors of the naturally happy people an be encouraged or taught to those who are less positive.

The takeaways from all of this work are 1) stress is toxic; 2) it affects all of us; and 3) there are ways to reduce its impact on our health. I’m grateful to these scientists, and so many others, for the intellect and passion they have devoted to this work. It has informed my teaching, inspired my writing and improved my personal wellness.

 

 

Seeking truth and beauty

On our journey to better health and wellness, the spiritual dimension can be like the elephant in the room. We know somehow that it is important, but talking about it and figuring out what it means can be uncomfortable. So we avoid it as long as we can, before realizing that a fit body and mind only go so far if your spiritual health is struggling.

What is spiritual wellness? Every definition stresses that it is personal and individual. No one can create a mold for spiritual wellness and fit you into it. It involves your values and beliefs, the meaning you attach to life events and your existence, your sense of purpose in life. But some general components of spiritual wellness include having and demonstrating some purpose, the ability to be compassionate to others, the ability to forgive, the ability to spend solitary time in reflection, and aiming for a certain harmony about your relationship to the world. One of the things that make people squirmy about spirituality is confusing it with religious practice. But while religion certainly encompasses a sense of spirituality, the inverse is not true. Spirituality does not have to include any religious belief.

When we write goals for wellness, we can include spiritual values and goals as part of the overall plan, as John Evans suggests in Wellness and Writing Connections. He also proposes affirming spiritual wellness by writing “notes to yourself when you notice beauty, truth, peace, hope, courage, kindness, love, compassion.” These notes can be an antidote to our daily dose of stories about conflict, violence and hate. Writing them down helps us to remember them, and gives us something to return to repeatedly for spiritual nourishment.  A few months ago, for instance, I wrote myself a note about a 10-year-old boy who was learning how to grow a garden. He told a newspaper reporter that, “You give it love and care like you would a baby. You feed and water it.” I often like to let my mind rest on that child’s simple message of truth and love.IMG_0121

I also wrote myself a note when I read And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini. He included part of a poem by the 13th century poet Jelaluddin Rumi that goes like this:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase each other

doesn’t make any sense.

Here too, I find truth and beauty that resonate with each reading.

Author Gail Radley writes that “Human beings are meaning-makers,” but “to make meaning and find purpose, we must expand our vision [by] stepping into the realm of spirituality, into belief in something larger than ourselves.” Stepping into the realm of spirituality means sensing unity with other people, with other creatures, and with nature, and seeing your connection to the larger environment. It means meeting the world from that inner soulful place that is your best self. That’s the place from which we say “Namaste” at the end of a yoga practice. It translates to something like, “The divine in me bows to the divine in you.” It is a way of expressing gratitude for the spark of goodness and beauty in another.

Where is the field of grass where you can let your soul lie down? Where do you find truth and beauty, hope and courage, kindness and compassion?

Contentment is hard to find in January. There’s a letdown after the holiday months of November and December. Many of us are experiencing winter at its harshest. And the resolutions that we made a month ago with optimism and enthusiasm have collapsed, wavered, or become a struggle to maintain. It’s easy to fall into patterns of judging ourselves pretty harshly and with a lot of negativity. If ever there was a time to practice self-compassion, this is it.

This morning, feeling like I needed to start my days in a more positive way, I hauled myself out to an early yoga class. When it came time to set an intention for the practice, I realized that I rarely set an intention or dedication of love toward myself. I usually send love and compassion to someone else in my life, or if I do direct an intention toward myself, it leans toward self-improvement: Energy! Patience! Greater productivity! I’ve become attached to outcomes in a big way, and forgotten to treat myself with the care and kindness of a good friend.

By the end of January, it’s easy to get into patterns of negativity and isolation, beating ourselves up about not reaching our goals, and cocooning ourselves at home with TV and comfort food while we wait for spring. But by looking forward rather than in, we miss an opportunity to flourish right now. Practicing self-compassion can, on the other hand, help us realize greater emotional well-being and more of that elusive feeling of contentment.

Kristin Neff, a professor at the University of Texas, says that there are three core components to self-compassion: self-kindness, recognition of common humanity, and mindfulness. Mindfulness means that we acknowledge our pain and discontent, our flaws and our failures, along with all of our good qualities. But we don’t feel isolated by those imperfections and our mistakes don’t feel so personal, because by recognizing our common humanity, we see that everyone else has the same needs and desires, and ups and downs that we have. And by directing loving kindness to ourselves and others, we reap a lot of potential benefits.

Neff’s research has shown that people who have more self-compassion experience less anxiety and depression, and have increases in happiness, optimism and other positive emotions. They engage in less negative self-talk, and their self-esteem  stays higher when something goes wrong for them, because they realize that everyone makes mistakes and they don’t take it so personally.

Author Karen Armstrong says that, “Compassion is a practically acquired knowledge, like dancing. You must do it and practice diligently every day.” The recommended way of practicing compassion is through loving kindness and compassion meditations. Here is an example of loving kindness meditation (practice it by directing it first to yourself, then one-by-one to others: benefactors/teachers, beloved friends and family, a neutral person, a difficult person):

May I be happy.

May I be peaceful.

May I be safe from harm.

May I enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.

May I experience ease and well-being in body, mind and spirit.

And a compassion meditation (practice the same way as loving kindness):

May I be free from suffering.

May I hold myself with softness and care.

May I be free from suffering and the root of suffering.

May I be free from the suffering caused by greed [or anger, fear, confusion, etc]

May I experience ease of body, mind and spirit.

May I respond to suffering with compassion.

Each time I go through these meditations, I return to the line, “May I hold myself with softness and care”, because I know that sometimes this is the thing we forget in our day-to-day lives. Softness and care, rather than harsh judgment: That’s what we need in January, and beyond.

Stranger danger

Empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of someone else – doesn’t come naturally to everyone in every situation. While we might flinch if we see someone get slapped – our mirror neurons reacting as if we had been hit – that’s not the same as feeling what they feel. And it turns out that true empathy might even be repressed if the person who is affected is a stranger to us.

A new study out of McGill University demonstrates that the social stress of being around strangers restricts our ability to feel and express empathy for them. Participants were subjected to a painful experience (plunging their arms into ice water) alone, with a friend or with a stranger. The level of pain reported was the same when people were alone or with strangers, but increased when the experience was shared with a friend. Empathizing with the friend’s pain actually increased the amount of pain the participants felt, but they did not have the same reaction when the person across from them was a stranger.

We know that empathy has benefits for society. The Greater Good Science Center lists studies showing that people with empathy are more likely to help others and to be heroic; empathy reduces prejudice, racism and bullying; it increases intimacy in relationships; and it helps managers to foster happier workplaces.New York (2)

At Psychology Today, Guy Winch writes that to build empathy, we have to direct our mind “to a place it does not go of its own accord” —  the other person’s perspective. We have to mindfully “paint the landscape” of that person’s situation in detail, so that we can feel what it’s like to walk in their shoes, look through their eyes. That takes intention and plenty of practice.

The Dalai Lama has said, “On the basis of [shared humanity], you then can learn how to empathize with others beyond your boundaries.” In the McGill study, it took surprisingly little for participants to overcome the boundary of social stress. When the participants spent just 15 minutes playing a video game (Rock Band) together before the experiment, they were able to feel and express empathy for each other during the cold water plunge. Those 15 minutes of shared experience turned strangers into friends, or at least made them familiar enough to lower stress.

Diplomatic efforts and peace talks between countries and factions are often an effort to build familiarity and empathy between people. Sometimes they are successful, like the Camp David Accords, but often they are not. Maybe we need to start smaller and sooner to building familiarity, trust and empathy in order to avoid the kinds of conflict that are so prevalent in the world today.

Jeff Brantley has a practice called “Look deeply at another” that helps alleviate feelings of separation and isolation from others. It starts with mindful breathing, and then selecting an image of someone to focus on. The next steps are:

See the person as if for the first time. Drop all the old stories about him or her. Notice as many details as you can.

Imagine this person moving through the stages of life, as a child, adolescent, adult, in old age, and at death.

See in this person the same wishes and fears everyone has. See the desire for love, safety and peace.

End by releasing the image and noticing your own thoughts and feelings without judgment.IMG_2320

If we look for common values and recognize that most of us want the same basic things from life, we can strengthen our capacity for empathy. Even if we start with something as simple as playing a game together, or saying hello in an elevator, we’re on the right path. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

 

A resolution and an intention are pretty much the same thing. But in the yoga tradition, the ideal is for intentions to come from the heart more often than from the mind’s desires. And that’s why I find myself setting an intention for 2015 even though I don’t really believe in New Year’s resolutions.

In Sanskrit, the word for intention is sankalpa. It comes from kalpa, which means “a way of proceeding” and san, a “concept or idea formed in the heart”. So setting an intention means acting on an idea or desire that comes from the heart.

What is my intention? Simply to spend 30 minutes each day reading a non-fiction book.

How does this intention come from my heart’s desire?

All my life, reading has been a treasured experience, “the greatest gift” according to Elizabeth Hardwick: “It is cheap, it consoles, it distracts, it excites, it gives you knowledge of the world and experience of a wide kind.” It has calmed me when I’ve been distressed, stimulated when I’ve been bored, provoked when I’ve been complacent. imageYet I have developed two habits that are getting in the way of reading serving my heart’s purpose. One is reading on the iPad, and one is reading mostly novels.

When I first started reading on the iPad, I promised myself that it would only be for traveling, so that I didn’t have to pack heavy books with me. Then I discovered Overdrive and started checking out library e-books. After that, I moved, and had to drastically reduce the number of physical books on my shelves. So I stopped buying “real” books. But one of the things I discovered is that I dislike reading nonfiction e-books because of the difficulty with flipping back and forth in the book, or easily finding a piece of information. So I just stopped reading nonfiction.

I will always enjoy reading novels more, and that’s okay. In fact, studies have shown that reading literary fiction helps us understand other people better and to build stronger relationships. But there is another world of information out there that I am missing by excluding nonfiction from my menu.

Reading is declining pretty much everywhere. A recent Wall Street Journal article discussed this development and the “Slow Reading” movement that has sprung up in places to counter  it. Proponents of slow reading even get together in some cities to read as a group (each with his or her own book). Research indicates that we need 30-45 minutes of reading in one stretch for true immersion (and presumably, improved comprehension), so that’s what these slow readers do.

I don’t think I’ll be joining a slow reading group, but I hope to model my reading on their design. Even my fiction reading doesn’t meet the immersion threshold most days — if I’m busy, I read for maybe 5 or 10 minutes before falling asleep, and while I mostly switch to airplane mode while reading, the iPad just offers too many distractions that lure me away from the book I’m reading.

The interesting thing about the Slow Reading movement is that their prerequisites for it sound a lot like those for meditation: a comfortable seat, a quiet environment, no distractions, the book as focal point. By bringing mindfulness to the act of reading, we can deepen the experience and its impact on us.

We take time for what is important to us. Thirty minutes a day to rekindle a treasured gift, to illuminate life’s purpose — that’s an intention from my heart.

No mud, no Christmas tree?

It’s the week before Christmas, and somehow it seems appropriate that I’m reading “No Mud, No Lotus” at the same time that I’m going around giving presentations to people on holiday stress management! In the book, Thich Nhat Hahn says that, “One of the most difficult things for us to accept is that there is no realm where there’s only happiness and there’s no suffering.” When it comes to holidays, sometimes we set our expectations for only one or the other, not realizing that happiness and suffering must co-exist.

IMG_1262Suffering can run the gamut from everyday stressors like traffic and annoying co-workers, to physical pain and poor health, to anxiety and depression, to the overwhelming grief that accompanies losing a loved one. But it is the “mud” of suffering that makes happiness real and meaningful. At the holidays, if we “get stuck in the mud of life”, wallowing in our pain, we risk turning into Scrooges. Yet if we are too starry-eyed about the ideal holiday, we feel slammed when something turns out differently. How do we find a middle ground and feel comfortable being there?

Here are 5 ways to improve your holiday — body, mind and spirit:

Start by acknowledging the bad along with the good. Thich Nhat Hahn writes, “We have to learn how to embrace and cradle our own suffering and the suffering of the world, with a lot of tenderness.” One of the best tools for doing this is to keep a little notebook near your bed, and use it to write each morning or evening. Write about what you are grateful for, or write about something that causes stress or pain in your life. Be present with the emotions that arise. You will probably gain insight and perspective from the process of telling your story.

Make sure your days are values-driven. How long has it been since you considered what is most important to you in life? Is it family, money, work, service to others? Whatever your core values are, how does your holiday time align with them? Are you spending time each day on the things that are the most meaningful to you? If you plan your day with your values in mind, you will end each day feeling better.

Practice mindful breathing. All suffering manifests in the body somewhere, but by reuniting mind with body, we can relax that tension. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The great news is that oneness of body and mind can be realized just by one in-breath.” When we focus on the movement of the breath, in and out, our minds are released for a while from their monkey-like tendency to jump from thought to thought.

Communicate. Sometimes relationships get strained around the holidays because of conflicting traditions, past grievances, or differing expectations. We often assume things about other people, their motives, their likes and dislikes. Try approaching a difficult situation with love rather than fear. People may surprise you.

Keep yourself healthy. Sleep long, eat well, and move often to use up stress hormones and negative energy. From No Mud, No Lotus: “…if we don’t have the time and the willingness to take care of ourselves, how can we offer any genuine care to the people we love?” Just as we are instructed on airplanes to put on our own oxygen masks first, before helping others, we need to do the same in everyday life. Only by starting with self-care are we wholly able to care for others.

“If you know how to make good use of the mud, you can grow beautiful lotuses.” How has your holiday grown out of you and your experiences? Perhaps you can see its reflection in the clear water that runs after the mud washes away.

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